Dr Eryn proves that hearing is believing

Dr Eryn Newman… “When people find something more difficult to process, they tend to evaluate things more negatively.” Photo by Danielle Nohra

WHETHER it’s a story told by the news, a friend or research presented by a scientist, Dr Eryn Newman says people are constantly making a decision about what’s real and what’s not.

“When people are assessing the credibility of information, most of the time they’re making a judgement based on how something feels,” says Eryn, 33, of Acton.

She first became fascinated about how people process information during her undergraduate degree in her home country, New Zealand, before expanding on it further throughout her postdoctoral training in America, where she co-wrote a paper about a “surprising” study, which she now shares in her new position at ANU.

In the study Eryn found that when people listen to recordings of a scientist presenting their work, the audio quality has a significant impact on whether people believe what they hear, regardless of who the researcher is or what they are talking about.

“As soon as we reduced the audio quality, all of a sudden the scientists and their research lost credibility,” she says.

During the study, one group of participants viewed video clips of scientists speaking at conferences in clear high-quality audio, while the other group heard the same recordings with poor-quality audio.

“Our results showed that when the sound quality was poor, the participants thought the researcher wasn’t as intelligent, they didn’t like them as much and found their research less important,” she says.

In a time when science is struggling to be heard above fake news, Eryn says this study has found that researchers need to consider how their messages are delivered.

“When people find something more difficult to process, they tend to evaluate things more negatively,” she says.

During the study, researchers conducted the same experiment using renowned scientists discussing their work on the well-known US “Science Friday” radio program.

“It was really surprising, again, that sound quality trumped the quality of the research,” she says.

“Surely it shouldn’t matter if the radio crackles? They’re already a rock star with fancy credentials.

“But when we added crackle into the background, all of a sudden the ratings plummeted.”

In a time where people are increasingly exposed to miscommunication, Eryn says it’s concerning for many professionals.

Through her research Eryn wants to make a contribution to criminal justice, which relies heavily on human memory and human judgement.

In the future she hopes to change the set up of courtrooms to try to create an acoustic environment where everyone’s voice comes out clear.

“Some courtrooms are set up in a way where it’s not clear,” she says.

The study was co-authored by Eryn Newman and Prof Norbert Schwarz of the University of Southern California and is published in “Science Communication”.

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